Devendra Banhart: Naturalismo Bohemio

In the Studio with the Kings and Queens of Freak Folk... Drawing on such wide influences as The Incredible String Band, Brazilian Tropicália, and obscure 1970s horror soundtracks, artists working in the fabled “freak folk” movement—an avant-garde strain of indie rock built upon the foundation of psychedelic folk—create music that is at once traditionaland groundbreaking. It’s a fascinating subgenre populated by some of the most creative musical minds of the modern day—one in which lo-fi recording techniques clash with academic musical aesthetics to create a sonic style that is characterized by equal parts Byzantine experimentalism and roots orthodoxy. Jumping into the studio with the wunderkinds of the freak folk world—Devendra Banhart, Grizzly Bear, Midlake, A Fine Frenzy, and The Valerie Project—we offer a unique view into the diverse recording practices and philosophies of the new guard of Bohemian music.  
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SMOKEY SIGNALS

With a catalog of critically-celebrated releases spanning reverb-soaked folk recorded on a four-track to Kinetoscopic psychedelia, singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart is one of the leading lights of the freak folk movement. Surprisingly coherent given the schizophrenic mishmash of musical elements contained therein, Banhart’s latest offering, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon [XL Recordings], finds the artist experimenting with analog tape to create soundscapes that are both rich and lo-fi.

“We tracked nearly everything to tape using an old one-inch Scully 8-track at slow speeds,” says producer/bandore player Noah Georgeson, who engineered the record with Beau Raymond, Maggie O’Brien, and Alex Pavlides at Banhart’s Topanga Canyon home studio. “We were running at 15 ips a fair amount of the time, but we were also running 7-1/2 ips, which the machine was not completely prepared to handle. The strange warble effect you hear in certain places is due to us running at 7-1/2 ips.”

Georgeson says that the team mixed Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon in Pro Tools, but often transferredtracks back to tape in order to manually manipulate tape speeds. “Devendra wanted a slow-motion sound for ‘Samba Vexillographica,’” Georgeson says. “Something akin to a tape machine being shut down. We tried to achieve that sound with tape emulators, but it didn’t really work. So we took a marker, marked a spot on the tape, grabbed the reel, and slowed it down with our hands. It took a bunch of passes to get it down right, because if you grab the tape too quickly the reel will stop spinning, but it produced the exact effect Devendra wanted.”

According to Georgeson, tracking Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon to tape gave the album a kind of steadiness despite the disparate musical influences being conjured by Banhart. “Putting everything to the same brand of tape, on the same machine, makes for a very consistent sound—it’s almost pre-mastered in a sense,” Georgeson says. “From track to track, you have an enriched low end and a sort of glow on top. It took a lot of time to record—six months— and it was because we were very careful to keep everything uniform. But, texturally, the album makes sense, even though it’s all over the place musically.”

HORRIFYING SPILLS

Greg Weeks, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and founder of the Philadelphia-based band The Valerie Project, recently led his group through the recording of an alternate soundtrack to the cult 1970 Czech horror-fantasy film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders [Drag City]. “I’ve always been a fan of merging folk with psych and prog,” Weeks says.

“The album was quite a challenge,” says recording/mixing engineer Brian McTear, who runs Philadelphia’s Miner Street Recordings studio with partner Amy Morrissey.

“We captured the whole of the performances live in the studio with as many as seven musicians at any one time, stretched out across a span of only 15 feet. The amount of signal bleed from instrument to instrument was tremendous. A cello mic was acting like a room mic for the drums, and a six-foot concert harp was only eight feet away from the drums and it was picking up all the cymbals.”

To combat this potential mixkilling malady, McTear was forced to develop a few unorthodox miking strategies. “For the harp, I used an old Revox M3500, wrapped in foam as a shockmount, and stuffed inside the sound hole of the harp so that it functioned like a pickup,” the engineer says. “I also used a Shure KSM32 on the outside of the harp’s soundboard, but that was almost a foot away, and it was picking up the most bleed. I needed it to round out the harp sound, but, in reality, it wasn’t much more than a room mic for all of the other instruments. Thankfully, using the M3500 like I did allowed me one signal for the instrument that was totally malleable in the mix.” In order to avoid what was sure to be an enormous amount of bleed from Weeks’ searing, fuzzed-out guitar, the guitarist’s rig was isolated in Miner Street’s isolation booth. “Greg’s sound is, in part, due to the ear-bleeding volume he plays at,” McTear says. “There is no way any other instrument could be in the same room with him.”

“My objective is to get a guitar tone that is as thick, nuanced, and filled with as many weird overtones as possible, while keeping a certain clarity,” says Weeks. To that end, the guitarist matches up a Fender Deluxe Reverb with a Leslie 145 speaker.

“I’ll use a Leslie cabinet without the effect. The Leslies have a really weird midrange-y sound even when not engaging the horn.” McTear used two Shure SM57s on the Leslie, and a Coles 4038 ribbon on the Fender Deluxe Reverb. “The 57s were at either end of the Leslie— 180 degrees—pointing directly at the horns through the cabinet vent holes,” McTear remembers. “The Coles would have been about 30 inches from the speaker, pointed at the center of the cabinet.”

But even placing Weeks’ amps in the isolation booth didn’t keep his signal clear of bleed. “The Deluxe and the Leslie were sitting between a pair of very old upright pianos. The muting on the pianos is over 100 years old, so there’s always a little piano reverb finding its way into the track.”

In spite of all the steps taken to drive out the demons of signal bleed during the recording of The Valerie Project, there is still a significant amount of spillage on each track. But that’s okay, according to Weeks and McTear.

“Particularly with the mics placed next to Greg’s metalaphone and recorder, the bleed from the other instruments added a glue to the band’s melancholic music,” McTear says. “Those mics functioned as default room mics, and, even in the sections where those instruments weren’t being played, if I muted those tracks it became immediately clear that they should be ‘on.’ I figured that out about two seconds into the mix. A little bleed works in favor of bands like this. It’s part of the sound.”

THE BEAR’S TALE

For Brooklyn-based experimental indie-folk collective Grizzly Bear, everything from 1930s Big Band music and bluegrass swirls together with folksy guitars, ghostly quasichoral arrangements, and horn and woodwind swells to create the unique sound of their most recent effort, Yellow House [Warp]. According to multi-instrumentalist/producer Chris Taylor, the band’s primary objective is to evoke a powerful, psychedelic image in the minds of listeners.

“When recording, I think about how to convert visuals into sound and vice versa,” says Taylor. “If we wanted an antiquated sound for a track, we’d pick antiquated instruments— like an old Steinway piano. And if we want to set a perspective for our audience, we place mics where we think their ears should be. For example, with the Steinway we wanted to reproduce the perspective of a person with their head in the instrument, so we opened the lid and placed a Neumann U87 inside the piano, facing diagonally across the sounding board toward the low strings. We got the right amount of hammer, string, and body, and the listener has a ‘view’ like he or she is inside the instrument.”

Taylor says that a large part of Grizzly Bear’s sound on Yellow House came from applying compression during tracking as opposed to saving dynamic manipulations for the mix. “I came to the conclusion before we went in the studio that I wasn’t going to record first, and then affect the signal later,” he says. “For the drums, I’d run the overheads directly into the Universal Audio 2-1176, using the ‘allbutton mode’ to make the drums sound overdriven. [Editor’s note: On an 1176, “all-button mode” refers to the technique of simultaneously engaging all four compression ratios—4:1, 8:1, 12:1, 20:1. On the dual-compressor 2-1176, this can be achieved by simply turning the ratio selection button to “all.”] I’d set the impedance on the unit to 15k as well, which made the track sound brighter and punchier.”

In terms of sonic chicanery, Taylor says that “Plans” is the album’s standout track. “Nonhorse’s G. Lucas Crane plays tapes during the song,” he explains. “He has two Sony TCM-929 tape players—which have great internal mics—that he stores sounds on. He mixes them like a DJ, flanging the tape wheels and cuing back and forth between the decks. We ran him through a P.A. into the live room, and I recorded the room sound with a Neumann U87i into Pro Tools.” According to Taylor, a portion of the songs that make up Yellow House were initially built upon simple loops.

These rather simple compositions were then fleshed out on the fly in the studio, eventually taking on a life of their own. The ultra-creepy album closer “Colorado” is a strong example of this compositional technique at work.“‘Colorado’ began as a twominute piano loop,” Taylor says. “I had this idea that we could take this real eerie, heavy piano part and turn it into this epic, rocking song. Ed Droste [Grizzly Bear founder] played an old Acetone Rhythm Ace drum machine for the song’s rhythmic pulse, and then he wrote this cascading four-part vocal arrangement in the studio. He laid the vocals down piece-by-piece until it made sense rhythmically. The song was this amazing organic growth that was completely unlike anything we had ever done before.”

SYNISTER SYNTHS

Midlake’s Paul Alexander engineered and mixed his band’s newest CD, The Trials of Van Occupanther [Bella Union], as well as playing bass, keyboards, guitar, piano, and bassoon. But regardless of the plethora of instruments present on the album, Alexander says the band’s keyboard collection is to blame for the earthy and lush lo-fi washes. “The drums and bass are very present in some songs, like ‘Chasing After Deer,’ ‘Young Bride,’ and ‘We Gathered in Spring,’” Alexander says, noting that the two instruments were tracked on an Otari MX5050 8-track because the medium imparted “warmth and throatiness” to the sound. “But a lot of the album is synth-based, recorded using a Roland VS-2480 digital workstation.”

Critical to Midlake’s sound is the group’s proclivity for integrating multiple keyboards into sections. On ‘Roscoe,’ for example, the piano sound is an equal blend of a Kurzweil SP88X stage piano and a Korg MS2000B synth. “Blending the two creates a strange electric piano sound,” Alexander says. “We ran both instruments straight into a Brent Averill BAE 1272 as it smoothed out the top end. It fattened the lows a bit too much, though, so we had to use the EQ on our Mackie 16•8 board to cut some of the low end and make it sound more natural.”

Alexander credits Van Occupanther’s natural synth sounds to his trusty Empirical Labs FATSO. “We put the FATSO on virtually every synth track on the album, as well as the mix bus,” he says. “Not because we needed to even out the dynamics, but because it added warmth to the instruments. Applied on the mix bus, a good analog compressor will really help the instruments coagulate.”

A FRENZIED ATMOSPHERE

Twenty-two-year-old Alison Sudol (a.k.a. A Fine Frenzy) crafts beautiful, piano-driven lite-rock mixed with freakfolk on One Cell in the Sea [Virgin]. The album saw her teaming up with coproducers Lukas Burton and Hal Cragin to create a tapestry of noises that serve as a foundation for the singer/pianist’s sweet-and-salty melodies. “This album is all about atmosphere,” Burton says.“On one hand, it’s very produced with lots of layers of Roland Juno and Korg Triton synth patches. On the other hand, particularly for Alison’s voice, it was very bare bones. We didn’t want to trample on the wispiness, clarity, and vulnerability of her voice, so we tried to stay away from the compressor as much as possible.”

Engineer Brian Scheuble credits Sudol’s vocal sound on One Cell in the Sea to a modified Neumann U87, courtesy of Stayne from Innertube Audio. “It’s a tube mod for the U87,” Scheuble says. “In that respect, it’s more like a U67. I’m not usually one for modded mics, but I heard how clear the mic’s sound was, and I had to use it on her.”

Scheuble points out that the grit present on One Cell in the Sea is, in part, due to his applying a cheap cassette recorder as a room mic. “It picks up everything,” he says, “and it adds a little bit of noise—which makes the recording feel more real.”

While Burton and Scheuble claim that retaining the natural beauty of Sudol’s voice and her pianos (an upright Yamaha and a Steinway grand) was considered of ultimate importance, there are a few choice sections on One Cell in the Sea where the executive decision was made to slather a track or three in effects. “There were slow, vibe-y songs, like ‘Whisper,’ ‘Ashes and Wine,’ and ‘Almost Lover,’ which begged for some atmosphere,” says Scheuble. “So we’d put reverb on the piano, and flip the signal for a backwards effect so it had a long trail coming up to the hit. That created a real spooky, ominous vibe to the songs.”